Historic Structures

Sears Department Store Building, Washington DC

Date added: March 27, 2020 Categories: Washington DC Department Store Commercial

The Sears, Roebuck & Company department store, designed and built in 1940-41, is highly significant to the architectural and cultural heritage of the nation's capital. Designed by the Sears company's chief architect John Stokes Redden and store planner John G. Raben. It is among Washington's earliest and most significant examples of modern commercial architecture, illustrating the revolutionary impact of the Modernist design philosophy of functional expressionism on the historicism that constituted Washington's dominant architectural idiom; in conception and execution, the building anticipated the modern revolution which transformed the city after the war. It embodies significant innovations made by an influential national retailer in the development of modern department store design, including a "windowless" and "upside down" layout--a major customer entry from roof parking. The Sears department store also exemplifies significant national trends in the development of modern merchandising, including the decentralization of major retail centers to suburban locations, the integration of automobile parking and services into shopping facility design, the reformulation of department store layout to accommodate modern climate control systems and merchandising techniques, and the expression of practical modernity as a basis for customer appeal.

This Sears building ranks among the most innovative stores realized during the seminal period of development by a company that has had significant impact on twentieth century retailing practices in the United States. By the mid-1920s, Sears had expanded beyond its mail-order beginnings to enter the retail market, guided by retired General Robert E. Wood, a veteran of Army supply operations. The company's initial outlets resembled warehouses, but by the early 1930s, Sears began to develop a more sophisticated national merchandising strategy. Stores were classified according to market size, with corresponding facilities and selections of merchandise. Sears first commissioned outside architects, but by the end of the 1930s, its own in-house planning and construction departments created complete new prototypes of modern store layout and design.

When the first generation of big Sears stores was built in seeming isolation along arteries far from the urban core, they attracted considerable attention because the overwhelming dominant center for retailing in Washington and almost every other U.S. city was downtown. The typical Sears neighborhood was one of modest single-family houses. Sears was instrumental in altering the notion of department store exclusivity. Capitalizing on the great success of its mail-order sales to a predominantly rural population of modest means, the company stressed inexpensive, practical, good quality merchandise. The vast unadorned selling floors of its first big stores, afforded a striking contrast in appearance and merchandise to the leading emporia. Sears gave no-frills merchandising a respectability it had seldom enjoyed before. The target audience was the enormous urban population of modest means.

Thousands of consumers responded enthusiastically to Sears stores because they met wide-spread needs in a setting that was no nonsense, yet seemed eminently respectable rather than cheap. Sears also changed the retail climate by adapting operational methods pioneered by chain grocery and variety stores in earlier decades. As a mail-order house, Sears was already among the retail giants, having developed its own successful methods of volume purchasing and sales. In 1922, its earnings of over $5 million were matched by only two big downtown store operations, Gimbal Brothers and the May Company, both of which had outlets in several major cities. Only F.W. Woolworth exceeded this level.

When Sears expanded into retailing, Sears purchased large volumes of durable goods at unusually low prices without a middleman and passed the savings on to customers. Between 1925 and 1929, the company opened almost 60 full-line, "A", stores in major cities and several hundred stores carrying a limited line of goods in smaller communities. Net earnings soared to over $30 million and net sales to $415 million in 1929. On the eve of the Depression, Sears had a network of stores throughout the country that far exceeded its closest rival, Montgomery Ward.

After five years, Sears had redefined department store retailing into a national enterprise of enormous volume, focusing on basic goods for the mainstream population. In the process, Sears also helped redefine the location and character of the department store building type. Rather than choose sites downtown or even in outlying business centers, Sears' new outlets stood more or less in isolation with few if any commercial establishments close by. This siting practice ran directly counter to conventions of the period. The prevailing view was that such locations were of marginal value. However, Sears' underlying criterion was that stores be conveniently accessed by a critical mass of its target audience. Sears believed that customers would prefer to drive to a store, not far from where they lived, as opposed to contending with the streetcar trip downtown. Thus, stores were located along a major artery and at or near a major intersection. Land prices were much lower in the outlying areas than in concentrated business areas, a savings that permitted the store to spread horizontally rather than vertically. This building form was cheaper to construct and better for selling. Moreover, the low land costs enabled at least half of the parcel to remain open for parking an unheard of amenity at that time, but the form characterized every Sears store from the beginning.

Virtually no precedent existed in the retail sphere for any of these elements. The model, it appears, was from the latest planning of industrial buildings, of which Sears' own mail-order plants were widely considered leading examples. The "A" stores also looked somewhat like industrial plants, upgraded with a few decorative embellishments which situated them ahead of the cheapest store.

Sears' mass-marketing merchandising techniques began to influence those of major department stores and provided a model for many chain companies as early as the 1930s. During the post war era, leading retailers were virtually unanimous in acknowledging that Sears was the single-most important force in shaping their then current thinking. Even before the Depression, Sears' great success in outlying locations prompted many downtown store executives to establish branches so as to remain competitive. Some of those branches were similarly sited. Low-loft stores as they were called, began with Bullock's Wilshire in Los Angeles of 1928-29. By the late 1950s, several other major department store companies were following Sears' model of becoming a true chain, that is having a network of equal stores throughout a region as opposed to a downtown parent store and smaller branches in satellite locations.

Sears entered the Washington, D.C. market in 1929 with a big store on Bladensburg Road (the major thoroughfare into the city from the northeast) just north of Benning Road, an easily accessible site. (The store has been demolished.) It was located several blocks to the east of the outlying business center around H Street, NE, then arguably the most important commercial area, next to downtown, for Sears' target audience. The stores around H Street were small. However, the new Sears "A" stores of the 1920s averaged around 100,000 square feet, at a time when 5,000 square feet was considered large for a store in an outlying area. H Street was close enough for comparison shopping but the Sears store was sufficiently removed to have its own identity. Within the local context, the store was an especially pronounced departure for it was the only large-scale retail outlet situated beyond the city center until the Wisconsin Avenue Sears store opened in October 1941.

The Wisconsin Avenue store possessed all the unique siting characteristics of its predecessors from the 1920s. At that time, the area was congestion-free and not near a concentration of retail. The location was easily reached from the nearby neighborhoods as well as Montgomery County.

The building was also at the forefront of some significant changes that reveal the company's dynamic approach to store development. The Wisconsin Avenue store is part of a decisive turn in the company's merchandising and design practices. Not surprisingly, Sears built far fewer "A" stores during the pre-World War II years than it had during the expansive 1920s. Those realized were less standardized and responded to the location. These buildings also tended to have experimental aspects to them, introducing new features that might prove their value to widespread use in the future. To combat the impact of the Depression, Sears began to enlarge its market, targeting women and a larger segment of the middle class. This shift explains the siting of the Wisconsin Avenue store in an area where the population was predominantly white-collar and not far from wealthy neighborhoods. This new group of patrons, in turn, appears to have had an impact on store design. If the buildings were to have a greater middle-market appeal, they must look less like factories and more like typical stores. To achieve that end, Sears remained true to its character by defying conventions.

Rival Montgomery Ward took a more mainstream approach, adopting a decorous-historicism then popular and suggestive of a rise in stature. By contrast, Sears pursued an increasingly modern vein, culminating in several stores of which that on Wisconsin Avenue is among the most fully developed. They were characterized by a sleek abstraction of horizontal form inspired by avant garde examples. This kind of modernism was still very novel for retail facilities but was soon adopted by some of the most fashionable and prestigious firms in the trade, such as Lord and Taylor (Manhasset, 1940-41) and Bullock's (Pasadena, 1945-47).

At the same time, Sears remained true to its origins. Its cultivation of a modernist vocabulary was of a practical nature and avoided associations of a resort hotel or of a country club, such as Bullock's cultivated. To implement the ideas, Sears chose a new team of designers. The firm headed by George Nimitz, a national leader in the design of industrial buildings, responsible for almost all the Sears mail-order plants and the new "A" stores erected through 1938, was now replaced by an in-house team, John Stokes Reden and John Girard Raben, both from the store planning and display department. The Wisconsin Avenue store was one of their premier demonstrations of charting a future course for the company's retail outlets.

Raben was hired by Sears not long after the department's founding in 1932. Previously, he had worked for the Los Angeles designer John Peters on the remarkable interiors of Bullock's Wilshire and created horror movie sets for Universal Pictures. Raben was asked to rethink the interior layout for Sears, giving increased attention to the arrangement and display of merchandise so that the sales floors would seem less like warehouses.

As a result, Raben proposed to eliminate all windows except for ground level display windows for the new store in Chicago's south side. With advances in air circulating systems the arrangement made sense and interior lighting was more controllable, emphasizing displays and not harming merchandise. Doubts existed, however, as to whether the public would accept such a face. Raben prevailed. The windowless store in Chicago attracted national attention. It set a precedent followed by all subsequent Sears stores and eventually by department stores across the nation.

The scope of the store planning department broadened in 1938 with the hiring of architect John Stokes Redden who had worked for one of the nation's most prominent commercial firms, Holabird and Roche. Raben and Redden began to work on a new prototype, the Pico Boulevard store in Los Angeles of 1938-39. Their objective was to design the store around the displays, circulation, storage, and other internal needs, rather than to assume that a vast industrial plant-like box would satisfy all requirements. For the consumer, the exterior change was most apparent. The concept of the monumental exterior, the hallmark of Nimitz's stores, was completely altered. This image was replaced by a building of lower profile, more dynamic in form, where every part seems to have a clear, logical purpose instead of contributing to a neutral form.

Redden and Raben preached utilitarianism. They claimed that only elements essential to the building's efficient functioning remained at the Pico Boulevard store. The architectural press no less than the retailing divisions depicted their functionalist methods as the very essence of good design and cast the building as a new model for stores generally.

Between 1930 and 1950, scarcely any retail building anywhere in the country received more publicity. The enormous success of the Pico Boulevard store led to two other Redden and Raben designs before the war, in Birmingham, Alabama and in Washington, D.C. The Birmingham store was the first Sears to have its entire selling area on a single floor, a feature not often repeated due to land costs. Washington's, by contrast, was unusually compact due to site limitations and also to neighborhood concerns that the building not be too intrusive.

Beyond its associational significance, the Wisconsin Avenue store has a number of important physical attributes that make it among the most sophisticated and innovated of dozens of "A" stores built by Sears during the interwar decade. Not the least of its distinguishing characteristics is the success with which Redden and Raben were able to respond to neighborhood demands with the building not overpowering otherwise seeming to encroach upon the residential blocks close by. This was among the largest of the Sears stores to date, with nearly 200,000 square feet of floor area. This space not only encompassed sales, storage and office functions but also the auto service facility, a feature introduced at Sears stores in 1932 but which had always been housed in a separate structure elsewhere on the property. In keeping with concerns for neighborhood decorum, the service area was minimally articulated on the exterior. Similarly, the loading bays located at the rear, on the west elevation, were recessed into the building so as to minimize intrusiveness.

Off-street parking presented another challenge on this comparatively small site. Unlike all of the other "A" stores, no space existed for on-grade parking. Thus, the team designed a parking deck on the roof, a concept introduced at the Pico Boulevard store to supplement the constrained ground-level parking. It accommodated 150 cars and was among the most ambitious features of this kind then found in the United States. The technology had been developed some years earlier for multi-level parking garages, however it was not used due to the high structural costs and the persistent reluctance among many building owners to allocate money for on-site parking. The Pico Boulevard and Wisconsin Avenue stores stood out as pioneers of a concept many observers thought would prove to be widely used in the future.

The impact of the building is mitigated by the fact that half of it is below grade, functioning as retail space and storage. The intricacy of a floor plan accommodating diverse functions on a site as irregular as it is constricted also underscored how much of a departure the building is from the typical box-like stores designed by Nimitz, such as in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Equally important on the overall effect of the building is the skill with which the exterior form and details are manipulated. Taking advantage of the angled configuration at the principle corner, Redden and Raben designed an enormous display window, far larger than windows found on most retail stores, and accentuated it by recesses at each end and by a curvilinear overhang above. Other parts of the two main elevations facing Wisconsin Avenue and Albemarle Street are less theatrical but hardly uniform. Throughout the composition emphasized horizontality while unifying the diverse parts so that the overall effect from a distance is subdued rather than agitated. Yet from the pedestrian's perspective, the aspect is constantly changing, which subtly breaks down the scale of the walls' great linear dimensions.

Beyond form and composition, texture is used to enhance the effect. Like all the new "A" stores, this one is of reinforced concrete construction. And like all those erected after 1936, its exterior walls were exposed concrete. The site configuration, however, prohibited a conventional arrangement of expansion joints. This constraint was turned into an opportunity by creating a tapestry of concrete patterns, alternating the alignment of form work imprints, on the entire wall surfaces. The textural richness is not discernable from afar, but offers a play of texture, light, and shadow from the sidewalk.

Another example of how the building's structure becomes its decoration is the treatment of the ramps to the parking deck. The most prominent lies at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and River Road, conspicuously advertising the availability of parking.

The idea of a fully-exposed vehicular ramp bisecting the main front of a store was unheard of at that time. However, this element plays a key formal role as well as its functional role. The ramp is essential in breaking up the mass of the Wisconsin Avenue/River Road elevations which, meeting at an oblique angle, could otherwise render the effect formless and unrelieved. On the other hand, the second entry ramp facing Albemarle Street is tucked behind the exterior wall as unobtrusively as the auto service entrance.

The parking deck itself was a great convenience. Although its elements were few, all were treated with the same attention to detail as found on the elevations. The deck is punctuated by two penthouses, one now greatly modified. The other remains intact. It housed basic functions in ways which were dramatic and underscored the ambient newness of driving onto the roof of a store and then descending into its spaces via escalators. Redden frequently relayed to the architectural press that utility was the driving force behind every aspect of his designs for Sears. Yet, it is clear, due to their level of integration, that both aesthetic considerations and popular perception figured prominently in his goals, fulfilling a primary modernist dictate.

Redden's and Rabin's work possesses a forceful utilitarianism, gained perhaps from years of experience of working for commercial clients. The closest parallel and a likely source of inspiration was the work of Rolland Wank, chief architect for the Tennessee Valley Authority. More or less contemporary, these projects were widely covered by the architectural and popular presses. Wank was insistent that his architecture grow out of utilitarian requirements of the dams, generating plants, cranes, observation decks, and other features of the scheme. Both the attitude and the product bear obvious similarities. When it was built, the Wisconsin Avenue store was unlike anything locally in its design irrespective of function. The prevailing modernist idiom was an abstract classicism, or modern classicism, popularized by Paul Cret with his Folger Shakespeare Library but often expressed in less inspired ways, as with Gilbert Underwood's appropriate somber pile for the war department of 1939-40. In the commercial vein, streamlining was the most common modernist vocabulary as here expressed with great vigor at the Hecht Company warehouse of 1936-37.

It is likely that Sears influenced Washington's conservative downtown companies to consider expansion into outlying, yet expanding, areas. Julius Garfinckel led the way with a modest low-loft store in the Spring Valley neighborhood of 1941-42. Immediately after that, Woodward and Lothrop wanted to build a store in Chevy Chase and Arlington, both of which became stillborn as a result of neighborhood opposition. The Wisconsin Avenue store was Sears' second Washington building, following its 1929 store on Bladensburg Road, NE. Sears also built stores in Arlington, Virginia (1942-46) and Silver Spring, Maryland (1949), and on Alabama Avenue, SE (1956); the two suburban stores are extant. After Sears, the first really large store to open beyond the city center was the Hecht Company in Silver Spring of 1946-47 which despite appearance was no larger than the Wisconsin Avenue building in its total floor area.

Sears' new buildings changed once again after the war. It seems that Redden and Raben never again teamed up to design a facility themselves. They directed the company's renewed expansion program, working with a number of architects. These buildings followed a shift in retail architecture generally whereby minimal expense and attention was given to the exterior. At first a small amount of embellishment remained, as with the Santa Monica store of 1946. Within a few years, however, the exteriors became little more than a large box, as with the Wilmington, Delaware store of 1950.

The distinctness of the Wisconsin Avenue store is matched by the unusually good condition of its original fabric. Particularly for a retail building, this facility has sustained remarkably little alteration. Several display windows were enclosed sometime before 1970. The main penthouse was enlarged and much of its original fabric removed in the 1950s. Another change was necessitated by the introduction of the Metro station entrance in the 1970s. While prominently located by the store's main entrance, this modification retained basic aspects of the elevation and it is not even apparent to the casual observer that this area has been altered.

Many Sears stores have not fared as well particularly with the wave of closings in recent years. The Pico Boulevard store closed in 1989 and while most of its fabric remained intact, its character has been conspicuously altered. Changes to the Baltimore store, which opened in 1938, are more basic and irretrievable. Washington's store on Bladensburg Road was demolished several years ago. The city's third and only other "A" store on Alabama Avenue, of 1950-51, was abandoned several years ago.

Smaller Sears stores built in the Washington area during the 1930s and 1940s, which never approached the physical condition of the "A" stores, are also a thing of the past. The one in the Clarendon neighborhood in Virginia of 1940 is being altered. The Silver Spring, Maryland store of 1949 is long gone. Outside the Wisconsin Avenue store, examples built prior to World War II do not remain in recognizable form along the eastern seaboard between Philadelphia and Atlanta.

Sears' Wisconsin Avenue store thus possesses significance due to its size, location, and appearance. It also embodied a company which helped revolutionize retailing and forever changed the consumer landscape. Its architects were key figures in the saga of that company's development at a crucial juncture. The building itself possesses strong, formal design characteristics that make it an important one of the period for any location and one of exceptional significance locally.